#Lookback: Asmus Boysen, Dam Builder

A County 10 series in partnership with the Fremont County Museum System
where we take a #Lookback at the stories and history of our community and
presented by Mick Pryor, Financial Advisor with Edward Jones.

Asmus Boysen was born in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1868. He came to the United States in 1886 and settled in Iowa with his wealthy Chicago-born wife, Anna. While in Iowa, he became a multimillionaire working in banking, mining, and real estate. He amassed his fortune by not being afraid to take risks. He also served as a representative in the Iowa General Assembly between 1900 and 1903, so he had a few political connections.  

At the close of the 19th century, he was exploring the Owl Creek mountains for mining opportunities. Deposits of both copper and gold had been discovered in the area of Copper Mountain close to Wind River Canyon, and Boysen saw an opportunity to increase his fortune if a dam could be built, generating power and saving water for irrigation of new farms in the arid climate, and providing power for mining in the region. It was shortly after the reservation would be opened to White homesteaders who would demand water for irrigation.

Originally, Boysen had secured a lease on 178,000 acres from the reservation good for 20 years, but when the reservation was opened for White settlers to homestead on the reservation Boysen negotiated with the Native Americans to trade his lease for 640 acres of deeded land at the mouth of the Wind River Canyon and hired a firm out of Chicago, Ambursen Hydraulic Company to build his dam which was built near the first tunnel.  Asmus and his brother Allen proposed to operate the Bighorn Power company and invested $400,000 to construct a dam of concrete reinforced with steel; it would be 35 feet high and 200 feet across and would have 5 turbine wheels to generate electricity. During the early phases of the build, Asmus left his family in Iowa, but later brought his family to Shoshoni and built a home on the west bank of the Wind River.

Boysen’s dam was built in the winter because of the lower water levels in the winter.  The severe cold made the project very difficult.

Boysen also had mining interests in the area, and he was prospecting on the reservation. In the early 1900s, indignant citizens used 40 pounds of dynamite to destroy a diamond drill and other prospecting equipment that belonged to Asmus Boysen Mining company. Local prospectors felt the Boysen brothers had too much of an advantage “getting in and gobble (sic) up the choicest mineral tracts on the reservation before other prospectors were permitted on the reservation at all.”  President Theodore Roosevelt’s Attorney General “decided that Boysen shall not be allowed to prospect outside of the boundaries of his original lease and shall have only 30 days after completing the surveys to make his selection.”

By 1908, Boysen’s dam was properly completed.  It was estimated that a lake fourteen miles long and two and a half miles wide would form behind the dam as the water rose. Boysen bought out homesteaders whose farms would be flooded for a fair price, but there was at least one homesteader who was flooded out in the middle of the night by rising waters behind the dam.

 At this same time, the Burlington Railroad had a right of way through the Wind River Canyon and had done some of the survey work before Boysen’s dam was built, and the new dam presented major problems for the Burlington Railroad.

In 1908, Boysen and his lawyers went before the State Supreme Court requesting an increase in the height of the dam from 35 feet to 50 feet. Shoshoni and Thermopolis hoped a compromise could be worked out between Boysen and the railroad; city fathers wanted both the railroad and the dam.  Boysen was only given a permit for a 35 ft dam.  Boysen proceeded to build a superstructure on top of the dam.  When ice and debris collected in the superstructure it effectively raised the dam up to 50 feet or more.  A few months later, Burlington brought action to forbid the Bighorn Power Company from completing the dam. The Wind River is a silt-filled river and silt was deposited above the dam which was one reason why Boysen requested an increase in the dam’s height.

Boysen’s life became a nightmare of lawsuits and litigations and injunctions, but the dam was still not producing power.  It took two years for the generators to finally be installed.  When the generators and lines were finally installed cheap hydroelectricity was brought to Shoshoni and Riverton, but only one generator was ever fully functional.

Boysen’s dam was over budget; it had cost as much as $3,000,000 dollars and had bankrupted Boysen, his wife and his sister, and financially injured his investors. Even though engineers had declared it a major engineering feat, the dam had broken its builder.

The highway through the canyon was completed in 1924.  The dam functioned as a powerhouse for a few years and a community of dam employees called Camp Boysen grew close by.  A bar called the Best Dam Bar was a popular meeting place that finally burned down close to the first tunnel. A flash flood occurred in 1923, washed out part of Boysen’s dam, and was the final blow.  The railroad tunnels were flooded and many miles of tracks were washed out around Bonneville. The railroad blamed Boysen’s dam for the damage.  For several months there was no train traffic from Thermopolis to Bonneville.  Lawsuits ensued, and the courts agreed with the railroad and held Boysen liable for the damage to the railroad.

Boysen returned to Chicago a broken and penniless man. He died in 1938. In 1948, what remained of Boysen’s dam was removed by the Bureau of Reclamations, and a new larger dam was constructed one and a half miles above the site of the old dam that same year.

Today, the new dam and the reservoir bear Boysen’s name.  He was a man with a good idea; he envisioned the potential of a hydroelectric dam. He was just ahead of his time.

Next up for the Fremont County Museum

July 23, 10 am Pioneer Museum “McKinney Ranch Trek” Wind River Visitors Council Discovery Speakers Series

July 23, 1-2:30 pm at Pioneer Museum “Family Name Plates” Bailey Tire/Pit Stop Children’s Exploration Series

July 27, 7-9 pm “Music at the Museum: Jan Marrou” at the Dubois Museum 

July 29, 8-6 pm “Simpson Lake Lodge Adventure Trek” at the Dubois Museum Wind River Visitors Council Discovery Speakers Series

July 30, 8 pm at the Dubois Museum “Astronomy of the Summer Sky” Wyoming Community Bank Discovery Speakers Series.

Thru October 2022, 9-5 pm Monday-Saturday, at the Pioneer Museum, “Hurrah for The Cowboy: Men of the Open Range” Art Exhibition

The Dubois Museum, the Pioneer Museum in Lander and the Riverton Museum need your financial support.  In the current economic environment, the museums are more reliant than ever on donations from the private sector to continue to provide the quality programs, collections management, exhibits and services that have become their hallmark over the last four years.  Please make your tax-deductible contribution to be used specifically for the benefit of the museum of your choosing by sending a check to Fremont County Museums 450 N 2nd Rm 320 or taking it directly to the museum you choose to support.  

Photo: one of the instructor’s cabins at the University of Missouri Field Station in Sinks Canyon, circa 1940

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